Tag Archives: bananas

The nuts and bolts of collaborative research on roots, tubers and bananas: RTB Annual Meeting

As the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) kicks off Phase II, the team came together in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for an annual review and planning meeting from March 11 – 12.

The meeting built on the momentum from the RTB World Café on Scalable Technologies which took place the day before, and along with updates of progress, focused on refining the nuts and bolts of collaboration to build effective flagship project and cluster teams. 

The event brought together over 80 researchers from across RTB’s five program partner centers – International Potato CenterInternational Institute of Tropical AgricultureBioversity International, International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) – along with colleagues from other partners including Wageningen University.

Over 80 participants from RTB partner centers came together for the annual meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

Graham Thiele, RTB Program Director set the scene with an analysis of strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the program, and some key responses to the address the points identified in the analysis.

“RTB is entering its second phase in a strong position. We had one of the highest rated proposals for Phase II, we have clear impact pathways to reach our targeted outcomes by 2022 and our alliance model means we have cemented, effective partnerships that will be critical to allow us to reach those goals. However, we also have areas to improve upon – The cost and complexity of coordinating such a large-scale program with over 350 partners is a challenge, as is the need to carefully steward our W2 funding and  mobilize funding for cross cutting opportunities,” explained Thiele.

“We also need to strengthen flagship leader’s roles in science quality and knowledge management, and cluster leader’s roles in project management, along with maintaining the ‘glue’ of collaboration in cross cutting areas,” he added.

Anne Rietveld shared a program update on gender research, highlighting the successful collaboration with the Gender Responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project, which provided training to agricultural researchers from sub-Saharan Africa on gender-responsive research for root, tuber and banana crops in 2016.

Claudio Proietti explained the progress of the new Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Platform launched at the end of 2016 as an all-in-one modular platform for improving planning, management, monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. 

Holly Holmes presented progress in RTB communications and outreach, including tracking digital analytics and engagement, and highlighting RTB’s interactive 2015 Annual Report website.

Conny Almekinders (center) of Wageningen University, summarizes key discussion points from the Flagship Project 2 session with the broader group. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

Flagship project leaders held interactive groupwork sessions with their teams, which are ordinarily geographically dispersed. A key output of the lively groupwork was a one-year timeline for each flagship detailing key upcoming events and moments in the project calendar, together with ideas for resource mobilization. As each FP presented their timeline and key discussion points to the broader group, members of other flagships identified areas of synergy and cross-flagship collaboration.

Simon Heck, Flagship Project 4 (FP4) leader, noted that the meeting had helped the team to come together and build some momentum.

“This was the first physical meeting of the FP4 team. We discovered that our different crop research groups are already working towards similar goals – strengthening the consumer focus of our research, supporting innovation that diversifies the use of RTB crops, and finding solutions for managing the perishability and environmental footprint of RTB crops as the food systems become more complex,” Heck explained.

Simon Heck (center left) and members of the FP4 team in group discussion. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

“The session gave us a sense of common purpose, and greater confidence that, by working together in the flagship, we can address these large questions more effectively and realistically. As an immediate next step, scientists from all partners and clusters are now contributing to a compelling cross-cutting research agenda for the flagship and are committing to joint research proposals on some key research issues affecting several RTB crops. It was a real energizer for FP4 and many of us will meet again in June to produce the first set of joint outputs,” he added.

Other participants divided into small groups to discuss practical guidance and next steps on the following areas:

  • Coordination and communication of, and between, clusters
  • Strategic Innovation fund
  • Monitoring and Evaluation
  • Big Data Platform
  • Excellence in Breeding Platform

The outputs of these discussions can be found in the annual meeting report.

In order to improve the lives of millions of men and women who depend on root, tuber and banana crops by 2022, it’s essential to ensure we have the nuts and bolts in place for an effective program team. To this end, the RTB Annual Review and Planning Meeting helped to solidify new flagship and cluster teams, and position the group for a strong start to Phase II.

For more detailed information about the meeting, please see the RTB Annual Review and Planning Meeting Report.

Transforming the value chain – one cooking banana at a time

This is the first installment in a series of in-depth blogs investigating the ways in which the RTB-ENDURE project is strengthening the value chains for root, tuber and banana crops in Uganda. Through firsthand accounts from the farmers, traders and scientists at the heart of the project we get an inside look in to the effect this is having on the ground. Reporting and photography by Sara Quinn, Regional Communications Specialist, the International Potato Center.

View the full photo story here

Uganda: High post harvest losses in cooking bananas

Cooking banana is the main staple crop in Uganda produced mostly by smallholders for food and income. However, the cooking banana value chain players face risks of high postharvest losses due to the short green life of bananas and damage arising from poor handling of the produce after it is harvested, leading to high physical and economic losses.

A detailed market study was conducted in Isingiro, Rakai and metropolitan Kampala in Uganda to identify and describe the key players in the banana value chain and establish the current demand and future growth prospects of the different banana presentation forms. The study also established the level of sorting and grading in the banana value chain, the level of use of the weight-based pricing system and the actor’s willingness to pay for its introduction, along with determining the extent and causes of postharvest losses along the banana value chain.

Read the full story on Fresh Plaza

Linkages between staple crops research and poverty outcomes

The Independent Science and Partnership Council’s (ISPC) Science Forum 2016 from 12 – 14 April in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will focus on the contribution of agriculture to reducing poverty under the topic: “Agricultural research for rural prosperity: rethinking the pathways”.

Co-hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the forum will rethink the pathways for agricultural research to support inclusive development of rural economies in an era of climate change, collecting evidence and building on lessons learned to suggest an updated list of priority research areas and approaches.

A breakout session during the forum will concentrate on the linkages between research on the staple crops of roots, tubers, bananas, maize, rice and wheat, and poverty outcomes.

A young woman sells root and tuber crops at a roadside market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A young woman sells produce including root and tuber crops at a roadside market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A collaborative endeavor jointly organized by the CGIAR Research Programs on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Wheat, Maize, and Rice (GRISP), the session will begin with a presentation by Jeff Alwang of Virgina Tech, jointly delivered with Elisabetta Gotor (Bioversity International), Guy Hareau (International Potato Center), Jordan Chamberlin (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) and Graham Thiele, Program Director, RTB. Following the presentation, the session will review theories of change and build on evidence that demonstrates the impact that international agricultural research working on these staple crops has had on reducing poverty.

“Innovations in root, tuber and banana crops have tremendous impact on poverty reduction by increasing farmers’ income through raised productivity, providing and strengthening linkages to markets, adding value and enhancing rural employment with better incomes through processing – which is often predominantly a woman’s activity,” explains Graham Thiele.

Growth in agricultural productivity, generating employment, and increasing farmers’ incomes are major pathways that link research to poverty reductions.

“Increasing productivity can also lower the cost of these nutritious staple foods for poor consumers and is essential for more viable value chains which generate employment especially for youth and women,” Graham adds.

A woman and man harvesting banana in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A woman and man harvesting banana in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

To date, impact analysis has largely focused on the ‘economic surplus approach’ to estimate standard rates of return to the research. However, donors want to be better informed about impact more closely related to development goals of food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. Assessing the impact of agricultural research is also critical for reasons of accountability, attribution, strategic planning and allocation of resources.

Despite the increasing interest and several ex ante assessments, including poverty dimensions, examples of ex post poverty assessments are scarce in the literature.

After reviewing the impact pathways for staple crop research and their supporting evidence, the session will draw on small group discussion among attending experts and develop a short paper synthesizing the key findings and conclusions of the session.

RTB’s ‘Foresight and Impact’ cluster of activity, led by Elisabetta Gotor, aims to enhance the program’s impact by guiding current and future investments of donors, policymakers, researchers and other practitioners on major opportunities and threats for RTB innovations at crop and systems levels.

Elisabetta Gotor comments that “the cluster’s research in this area will improve the targeting and tailoring of RTB innovations for next and end users, by providing insights on existing and future drivers of technology adoption.”

Read and download RTB’s current impact assessment reports for root, tuber and banana crops on our Impact Assessments page.

Adding value and reducing postharvest losses in Uganda’s cooking banana value chain

Cooking banana is the main staple crop in Uganda produced mostly by smallholders for food and income. However, the cooking banana value chain  actors face risks of high postharvest losses due to the short green life of bananas and damage arising from poor  handling of the produce after it is harvested, leading to high physical and economic losses.

A detailed market study was conducted in Isingiro, Rakai and metropolitan Kampala in Uganda to identify and describe the key players in the banana value chain and establish the current demand and future growth prospects of the different banana presentation forms. The study also established the level of sorting and grading in the banana value chain, the level of use of the weight-based pricing system and the actor’s willingness to pay for its introduction, along with determining the extent and causes of postharvest losses along the banana value chain.

Results show that the cooking banana value chain is characterized by a large number of middlemen (5-7) between producers and consumers, which is partly responsible for high consumer prices and increased postharvest losses as the bananas change hands.

Cooking banana for sale at a market in Mbale, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

Cooking banana for sale at a market in Mbale, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

The results further show that there are four market-preferred varieties; Nakitembe, Musakala and Mbwazirume, plus Kibuzi which also has a long shelf-life. While these varieties are not widely grown by farmers, they are willing to purchase clean planting materials of these varieties if available.

Bananas are traded mainly as bunches and unpeeled fingers at all levels, but also as clusters and peeled fingers at retail level. Clusters and peeled fingers are missing at the primary production end of the value chain. There is an increasing demand for peeled bananas by customers at retail level, therefore retailers could demand for peeled bananas right from the farm. It was also noted that there is an increased demand for smaller units and convenient forms of presentation, such as packaged peeled and unpeeled fingers to cater for the changes in demographics.

All the value chain actors grade banana bunches by size while only exporters grade by variety, appearance, size and shape of fingers. However, the majority of people working in throughout the value chain recognize the importance of sorting and grading and are willing to adopt the practice. The consumers also show willingness to pay a premium if such products were availed on market.

A banana exporter preparing her bananas, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A banana exporter preparing her bananas, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

Unit prices are determined by visual inspection. However, the actors recognize that this system is arbitrary and presents risks for unfair marketing transactions. Unlike other value chain actors, exporters buy and sell banana using a weight-based pricing system, yet their suppliers negotiate (through brokers) the bunch price at the farm using visual inspection. Post-harvest losses along the chain are high.

Substantial amounts of banana are thrown away (physical losses) particularly during the peak harvesting seasons and even higher volumes incur some degree of quality deterioration leading to lower selling price (economic losses). The study has estimated the extent of physical and economic post-harvest losses at each stage of the value chain. Female value chain actors experience higher losses compared to their male counterparts.  Major causes of the losses are bruising, ripening, finger plucking and scotching.

A woman harvests bananas in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A woman harvests bananas in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

The study has revealed various challenges and opportunities. Targeted interventions can be designed to address these challenges and also take advantage of the opportunities. Such interventions would reduce post-harvest losses and narrow the gap between farm-gate and retail prices.

This study has  been conducted in the framework of “Expanding Utilization of Roots, Tubers and Bananas and Reducing Their Postharvest Losses” (RTB-ENDURE), a 3 year project (2014-2016) implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) with funding by the European Union and technical support of IFAD.

The effectiveness of knowledge sharing: The case of ProMusa, a global knowledge platform on banana

ProMusa is a knowledge-sharing platform on bananas managed by Bioversity International through funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. It brings together scientists and other stakeholders working on banana, with the ultimate goal of helping banana farmers make a better living and ensuring that bananas – in all their diversity – continue to thrive in a healthy environment.

Through ProMusa, scientists and stakeholder can interact and access a variety of online resources and tools, such as an electronic newsletter, an online compendium of banana knowledge, a bibliographic database, an image bank and a contacts database. Discussions are encouraged through an online discussion forum, a community blog, and mailing lists. ProMusa also organizes a biennial scientific symposium to help its members stay up-to-date on the latest Musa research, encourage exchange of ideas and facilitate collaboration between scientists and across disciplines.

In 2013, a study was undertaken to assess the nature and effectiveness of ProMusa from the point of view of its members and subscribers, what outputs are produced and how these are translated into outcomes and disseminated outside the network. The results of the study are now being disseminated.

ProMusa is seen as a hub and dissemination place for information on banana; a common platform that facilitates collaboration and networking in the banana community from researchers to donors, practitioners, farmers and so on, where all sorts of updated information on banana can be easily found, from news to scientific research, diseases alerts, funding opportunities and events.

“According to the respondents of the study, the unique added value of ProMusa is that it provides reliable, well-respected and updated information on banana production and research in one place, and that it connects different people worldwide with the same goal”, says Inge van den Bergh, Bioversity International Senior Scientist and ProMusa coordinator.
Members also appreciate that ProMusa provides a space where information or views that don’t reach journals can be shared, which gives a valuable feel of hot topics and research needs with a variety of opinions.

“ProMusa’s competitive advantage is its global reach, providing access to free and updated information, with live feedback and sharing between experts from different fields all over the world”, concludes Elisabetta Gotor, Bioversity International scientist and co-author of the impact assessment study with Genowefa Blundo Canto.

Read the full study The effectiveness of knowledge sharing: The case of ProMusa

This research is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas.


Researchers and farmers in banana field, Uganda. Credit: Bioversity International/P. de Santis

Post originally published on the Bioversity International’s website

Scientists embark on fighting deadly banana disease

A group of scientists has embarked on a strategy to prevent the spread of a deadly banana fungal disease following an outbreak in Mozambique.

Tropical race 4 (TR4), a strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum, and responsible for a deadly banana wilt disease, was detected last year on a 1,500-hectare farm in Mozambique that grows the Cavendish banana variety for export. Scientists believe the disease was brought to the farm from Asia.
The African Consortium for TR4 (AC4TR4), a group of scientists formed in April this year after TR4 was detected in Africa for the first time, will seek ways to contain the deadly disease, according to experts who attended the annual review meeting of the CGIAR’s Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas in Uganda on 29 September-3 October this year.

Publisher: http://www.ippmedia.com/

Publishing date: 2014-12-29

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Partnerships and prompt response, key to prevent the spread of banana Fusarium wilt (‘Panama disease’)

In the first part of the 20th century, Fusarium Wilt Race 1 (popularly known as ‘Panama disease’) wiped out the popular Gros Michel banana variety. Currently the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is threatening the Cavendish variety, the most important exported banana, which had proven to be resistant to Race 1. Prof. Altus Viljoen, from the Department of Plant Pathology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, discussed TR4 and what is being done in Africa to combat this fungus.


Prof. Altus Viljoen

Are there any differences between the current banana situation and the situation back in the 1950s?

There are many important differences. The principal difference is that we now have the scientific techniques (molecular markers and vegetative compatibility grouping analyses) and modern communication systems that enable us to accurately identify and report the different forms of the fungus. This allows us to rapidly respond to new outbreaks. Secondly, the number of banana varieties affected (the host range) by Foc (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense) TR4 is larger. The Cavendish monoculture plantations are particularly sensitive to Foc TR4. The narrow genetic background and dominance of Cavendish as a dessert banana puts global production under serious pressure. The use of banana tissue culture plantlets, particularly by commercial Cavendish producers, significantly prevents the chances for introduction of the fungus into new plantations through planting material, compared to previously when suckers from infected plants were used to establish plantations.

In Africa, a continent where millions of people depend on bananas and plantains for their living, what is the current situation?

It is important to know the situation in northern Mozambique where Foc TR4 was introduced, and the production systems in Africa, to understand the potential threat of the fungus to African bananas. The affected farm in Mozambique is a large commercial Cavendish banana export plantation that is well isolated from any other banana production areas. The company has the financial means to introduce strict sanitation and other measures to prevent spread, and recognizes their responsibility in containing the disease on-farm. Still, a great deal of work should be done in the region, country and continent to prevent the disease from spreading and/or being again introduced into the continent from Asia. In Africa, cooking and juicing bananas are mostly cultivated in mixed production systems that make them not as vulnerable to Foc TR4 as in monoculture Cavendish plantations. Testing of a small selection of cooking banana varieties in Asia indicated that they have some resistance to Foc TR4. A much more extensive testing of African bananas, however, needs to be done.

What has been done so far among the scientific community to tackle the issue?

Since, and prior to the discovery of Foc TR4 in Mozambique, significant actions had been taken to address the introduction of the fungus into the African continent. For the past 4 years we have been testing a small collection of East African Highland bananas and plantains for resistance to the Foc TR4 in Asia, and have determined the diversity of Foc in banana production areas throughout central and eastern Africa. Since the outbreak, awareness has been raised throughout southern Africa, Mozambique scientists have been trained in Foc TR4 diagnostics and identification, and a stakeholder workshop had been held in Stellenbosch where an African Consortium for Foc TR4 (AC4TR4) developed a strategy to deal with Foc TR4 on the continent. This meeting was assembled by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch (SUN), the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Bioversity International, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). Also in attendance were delegates from national research organizations and government representatives of 10 countries in eastern, central and southern Africa.

What is the recommended course of action?

The strategy for Africa consists of four key approaches, each with a number of activities. These four approaches include:

  • To arrest and contain the spread of Foc TR4 in Mozambique and surrounding countries
  • To strengthen the capacity of the national agriculture research systems (NARS) to sustainably manage the disease in Africa
  • To institute mechanisms to coordinate and communicate AC4TR4 activities in Africa
  • To carry out research to generate new information and technologies for sustainable management of Foc TR4

Fusarium wilt – leaf symptoms (credit: G. Blomme/Bioversity International)

What is/has been the role of Stellenbosch University in dealing with this issue?

Stellenbosch University will take the technical lead in dealing with the introduction onset of Foc TR4 into the African continent. It will support the affected farm in collaboration with the Mozambique Ministry of Agriculture, IITA and Bioversity International. It has been responsible for the initial identification of the pathogen, and for implementing a containment strategy on-farm. Several African students working on Foc TR4 in Africa are registered at Stellenbosch University, and we are in an optimal position to collaborate with other African universities to build human capacity and implement containment methods on the continent.

How is Stellenbosch University interacting with RTB scientists?

Stellenbosch University has a long and very fruitful relationship with RTB scientists in Africa and globally. With the outbreak of the disease in northern Mozambique, Dr Gus Molina, from Bioversity International in the Philippines, was invited to the farm and confirmed the symptoms were similar to those he experienced in Asia. After Foc TR4 was identified at Stellenbosch University, Dr Fen Beed of IITA encouraged Serafina Mangana, head of the Mozambique regulatory authority, to notify the IPPC which in turn has led to funding support from FAO. RTB provided funds to support the containment measures in Mozambique which was coordinated by Stellenbosch University with logistical support from the IITA office in Mozambique. IITA then rallied up support from regional trade and research organizations, plus national regulatory and research staff, donors and commercial banana partners that led to an international workshop hosted by SADC in Stellenbosch. Key outputs included the development by expert stakeholders of a strategy to deal with Foc TR4 on the continent and the Stellenbosch Declaration. A further output from collaboration between Stellenbosch University and RTB is the development of a web-based information portal dedicated to Foc TR4 in Africa.

Stellenbosch University has been an RTB partner since the beginning of the research program. What do you see as potential new areas of collaboration?

RTB permits collaboration across different CGIAR centres and their partner networks, and thus the ability to harness comparative advantages of these. New opportunities for collaboration include coordination, planning and implementation of activities to contain and prevent the spread of Foc TR4, to safeguard banana systems and the people that rely upon them in Africa. While Stellenbosch University has the technical competence, these activities require facilitation through the RTB network to achieve wide scale outreach and effective partnerships across Africa and Asia. Jointly, Stellenbosch University and RTB plan to test a wider range of African banana varieties in Asia, and to introduce Cavendish banana somaclones with resistance to Foc TR4 into Africa. We have already developed a joint strategy for the continent, and this now needs to be implemented at a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder level. The fortunate thing in the Stellenbosch University – RTB partnership is that there is a long history of collaboration and trust between partners, and this will speed up our activities. It’s important to mention, as a failure to respond promptly and efficiently to the current challenge to prevent Foc TR4 from spreading in Africa would be a major setback for this partnership.

See: The ‘Banana Fusarium wilt in Africa’ platform, currently under development


Unravelling the banana’s genomic potential: ISHS/ProMusa held symposium in Brisbane, Australia

The International Society for Horticultural sciences (ISHS)/ProMusa symposium entitled “Unravelling the banana’s genomic potential”, was held from 18-20 August 2014 as one of the symposia of the 29th International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane, Australia.

Banana acts as a starchy staple food crop for approximately 500 million people, particularly those in the least developed countries, where many poor families are involved in its cultivation and many others benefit as consumers. In many parts of the world, productivity remains well below the optimum and, in certain areas, pitifully poor. Banana is also a potential gold mine of vitamins and micronutrients. With the banana genome recently unravelled, that potential is now more than ever ready to be exploited by the scientific community beyond boundaries not yet imagined. The genome sequence provides access to the plant’s over 36,000 genes, making it possible to identify those genes responsible for particular traits, such as disease resistance, dwarfism, fruit quality and many more, and opening up many exciting new opportunities.

With support from RTB, this symposium took stock of ongoing research efforts with the impact of the recently sequenced genome but also other areas of research. Special attention was given to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4, which is already a major problem in Asia and poses a huge threat for banana production in Africa and Latin America. The contribution of banana to human health and nutrition was highlighted, with a special focus on the crop’s diversity.

The first ISHS/ProMusa symposium was held in South Africa in September 2007.  Participants from 25 countries came together in White River, South Africa, to discuss the status of banana diseases and pests and progress made in their control, and to identify research priorities for the coming years.

You can access the presentations, workshop documents and photos of the Symposium on the ProMusa website: http://www.promusa.org/article128 

Université KU Leuven : la Belgique et les bananes dans le RTB

Rony Swennen, professeur à l’université belge KU Leuven, a rejoint l’équipe du RTB l’année dernière. C’était pour lui une étape logique dans une carrière de 35 ans au service des Musa, le genre des bananes et plantains. Chercheur de renommée dans une des meilleures universités du monde, il apporte au Programme de recherche d’amples connaissances et une riche expérience, ainsi que de nombreuses idées d’amélioration.

L’histoire de la Belgique avec les bananes commence dans les années 1930, lorsque des scientifiques belges commencèrent leurs recherches sur les bananiers et plantains dans ce qui est aujourd’hui la République démocratique du Congo, le Rwanda et le Burundi. Edmond de Langhe, aujourd’hui professeur émérite à KU Leuven, commença à étudier et à collecter différentes espèces de Musa dans la région dans les années 1950. A la fin des années 1970, il reçut une subvention du gouvernement belge pour entreprendre la recherche sur le bananier plantain à l’Institut international d’agriculture tropicale (IITA). Swennen, qui faisait son doctorat à l’Université KU Leuven, rejoignit l’IITA comme agronome et physiologiste en 1979, avant de créer le programme de recherche sur les bananes de l’Institut. Les résultats suivirent, avec notamment le développement de 14 variétés de plantains résistants à la maladie de la Sigatoka noire en 1987, pour lequel l’IITA reçut le prix CGIAR du Roi Baudouin en 1994. « Le Nigéria a émis un timbre postal pour célébrer cette réalisation », explique Swennen, « et j’ai même reçu le titre honorifique de « chef » au Nigeria. »Rony_IITA

La Belgique a continué à financer la recherche de l’IITA sur les plantains, et au fil des ans, une collection de bananiers de classe mondiale s’est développée à KU Leuven. En 1985, la Belgique, le Canada et la France créèrent le Réseau international pour l’amélioration de la banane et la banane plantain (INIBAP selon ses sigles en anglais), qui devint Bioversity International. Edmond de Langhe fut le premier directeur de l’INIBAP, qui a assumé la responsabilité de la collecte des variétés de bananes à la KU Leuven. Swennen lui succéda à la tête de la collection des Musa – maintenant appelée le Centre de transit international – tout en continuant à collaborer à l’IITA. Il commença aussi à enseigner à KU Leuven, où il devint professeur titulaire à la Faculté de génie en bioscience en 1997.

En février 2013, Swennen fut nommé chef du bureau de Bioversity International en Belgique, et dans les mêmes temps, chargé des activités d’amélioration des Musa à l’IITA. « Avoir un double contrat avec Bioversity et l’IITA est une occasion unique », dit-il. « Je suis heureux de faire le pont entre les deux centres. N’oublions pas que, finalement, nous appartenons tous au CGIAR et que les centres se complètent mutuellement ».

Swennen insiste pour que les scientifiques abattent les murs qui existent entre les centres de recherche, « pour le bien des agriculteurs », dit-il, et aussi parce que « nous devons avancer plus rapidement si nous voulons avoir davantage d’impact ». Il reste en contact étroit avec les agriculteurs, en particulier en Afrique.

Rony_genebank2L’une des réalisations dont il est le plus fier est le Prix d’excellence de la coopération Sud-Sud, que l’ONU a accordé en 2010 à un projet mis en œuvre par la Coopération Technique Belge sous la direction de la KU Leuven dans la région de Kagera en Tanzanie, où plus d’un million de personnes dépendent des bananes pour survivre. Ce projet, qui repose sur le travail du Programme international d’évaluation des Musa (IMTP), a été financé par le Programme des Nations Unies pour le Développement (PNUD) et exécuté par l’INIBAP. Une adoption rapide de nouvelles variétés et la distribution de 6 millions de rejets ont entraîné une triple augmentation du revenu d’un demi- million d’agriculteurs du nord-ouest de la Tanzanie.

La reconnaissance du travail accompli par la KU Leuven est également venue d’Asie. En 2009, Swennen a reçu le prix Kadali Puraskar en Inde lors du deuxième Congrès national de matériel de plantation sain de la banane. En 2000, les programmes nationaux de bananes en Asie lui ont donné le prix Pisang Raja, en reconnaissance des 21 ans de réalisation exceptionnelle dans l’amélioration des bananes et de la biotechnologie.

Etre enseignant apporte également à Swennen beaucoup de satisfaction. Il aime dire qu’il obtient le « meilleur des deux mondes » : le travail de terrain et la supervision des doctorants. Il est actuellement fasciné par les résultats obtenus par un étudiant de la RD Congo qui réalise la collecte de bananes plantains à travers son pays. « Il y a une telle diversité en Afrique centrale, c’est impressionnant ! ».

Rony_AfricaSwennen est un passionné de l’amélioration des bananes et il souhaite concentrer son travail sur l’Afrique subsaharienne. « L’amélioration a besoin d’un coup de pouce, mais il y a eu un changement de paradigme dans la recherche sur la banane. La recherche de variétés résistantes et à haut rendement ne suffit plus. Nous devons d’abord prendre en compte le goût et les exigences des agriculteurs ; ensuite intervient le travail de sélection de variétés résistantes », explique-t-il, avant d’ajouter : « Nous devons améliorer considérablement la collaboration. Avec les changements récents survenus au CGIAR, je suis heureux d’être de retour. La bonne nouvelle, c’est que le potentiel est énorme, parce que nous ne faisons que commencer ».